Pros at the con

Comedian-actor Eddie Izzard, below, sometimes favors the feminine look, which he ditches for The Riches, his new FX show about a family of con artists.

By Eric Deggans
Published March 12, 2007

Eddie Izzard feels for Steve Stanton.

Not that the British comic knows the former Largo city manager, or had even heard of the straitlaced administrator before a reporter told him Stanton lost his job after revealing he planned to have a sex-change operation.

But Izzard, who calls himself an "action transvestite" - heterosexual, fond of many manly pursuits, but enamored of wearing dresses and makeup - sees a kindred spirit in a man struggling to explain feelings about gender and sexuality that the wider world cannot easily grasp.

"We've been amongst you for a long time," Izzard said. "It's just that we have the extra gift of this girly place. It's just like any number of women who like to dress up and do some heels and some makeup . . . some women really love it and I love it too."

You might think Izzard, who has worn a dress during his stand-up comedy performances since the 1990s, would tire of talking about his life in women's clothing - especially, since his newest character, con artist Wayne Malloy in FX's new series The Riches, wears blazers and beard stubble.

But another character on The Riches - Wayne's young son, Sam - is also an "AT." And the only time Izzard's attitude brightened during a 45-minute interview is when talk turned to this subject, as the comic described coaching the costumers and makeup people so they can get Sam's look just right.

"I want Sam's character to be fighting and wearing makeup," said Izzard, who feared costumers would make the boy look gay, rather than a heterosexual boy who likes wearing dresses. "That's what most of my teenagehood would have been if I would have been allowed to wear a dress - scrapping, fighting, arguing and shouting at people and throwing on a dress and makeup.

"You can't spot a straight transvestite - even if you have the 'gaydar' or whatever, or if you have the 'transvestite-dar' - it just doesn't work, because we just seem like ordinary guys, except we've got this girlie part as well."

Izzard's words come in a rush of thoughts, piling on top of one another like the best routines in his classic 1999 comedy concert broadcast on HBO, Dressed to Kill. It's a surprising mix of fatigue-fueled giddiness and showbiz cynicism; an odd attitude, considering the 45-year-old performer is perched exactly where he has worked years to be.

A popular comic overseas since the early '90s, Izzard has steadfastly avoided the traditional trappings of comedy success, turning down offers for sitcoms and big comedy movies, keeping his eye on the big prize: a career as a Serious Actor.

And now, that status is within his grasp with The Riches, an explicit, comedy-tinged drama about a family of traveling con artists who take over the lives of a Louisiana yuppie couple killed in a car accident they helped cause.

Complicating matters is the Malloy family's status as Travellers: Southern-born descendants of Irish immigrants who, in the FX series at least, maintain a loose, family-linked confederacy, roaming the country in recreational vehicles and supporting themselves through petty cons.

"I'm sure there must be some very honest and wonderful Travellers - unfortunately, the ones that get into the papers are the ones that are more doing the grifts and the cons," said Izzard, laughing. "(This series is about) lying and cheating your way towards legitimacy - stealing the American dream. It is a difficult con - but I think Wayne actually wants it."

And sharp as Izzard is as the smooth-talking, slightly unhinged Wayne Malloy, the real star of The Riches is fellow Brit Minnie Driver, who plays Wayne's just-out-of-jail wife, Dahlia.

Armed with a spot-on Southern accent and the kind of look you'd expect on a woman fresh from prison with a hidden cough syrup addiction, Driver digs deep into a role most actors her age would find too unglamorous to tackle.

"I think I probably should care a bit more about what people think, but I don't really," said Driver, an Oscar-nominated actor who first appears onscreen in scraggly brown dreadlocks and prison-issue flip-flops. "It's nice to look nice, but it's far better to have something interesting to do, character-wise. And Dahlia is by far the most interesting character I've ever played."

It took about three years to bring this project to fruition, mostly because an initial pilot they filmed seemed too dark, Izzard said. The new version has comedic touches and rarely shows the clan ripping off someone who doesn't deserve it.

The comic even turned down a role on Fox's espionage hit 24 one day into filming, after he realized his appearance there would come too close to The Riches' debut.

In addition to featuring two British stars copping American accents and attitudes, the series has as executive producer and creator Dmitry Lipkin, a Russian who emigrated to Louisiana at age 10.

It all makes a twisted kind of sense to Izzard: Who better to tell the story of a bunch of outsiders trying to pass as solid, middle-class citizens than a bunch of outsiders to American culture and - in Izzard's case - conventional gender identity?

Yet another way in which The Riches gathers the divergent strands in Izzard's career and life.

"I've tried to introduce my sexuality to America and to Europe like - it's there guys . . . so everyone should just chill out about it," he said, expressing hope that his public stands will make it easier for men like Stanton to express themselves. "Hollywood is a place where they say we shouldn't have gay people here, or shouldn't have transvestites . . . but I knew it was better to go out there and be up front about it."

Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or deggans@sptimes.com See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.


"The Riches"

Debuts at 10 tonight on FX.
Rating: TV-MA (mature audiences).
Grade: A-